BY JAMES HARPER
“Hello, my friend” is an expression likely to have been heard when encountering Bethune-Cookman College President Emeritus Dr. Oswald P. Bronson.
Bronson, who was president of the school for 29 years – from 1975 to 2004 – turns 86 this year. He still has a twinkle in his eye but has been plagued by illnesses that has him wheelchair-bound and dependent on his children and wife to be his voice, conscience and his provider.
“Dad’s illnesses was a shock to my whole system,” said Bunny Bronson, her father’s main caretaker who did not want to go into specific details about her father’s diagnosis. She is writing a book about her experiences taking care of him and her mother as they get older.
She admits the roles have been reversed.
“My own feelings and emotions are often put on the backburner to keep things going. Much of my time has gone into keeping him encouraged and as uplifted as possible, and building a system of care that will do the same,” she said.
Pleased with Jackson
Bunny said that if her father could express in words what he thinks about Bethune-Cookman University, he would say he is happy with Dr. Edison Jackson as the school’s new president.
“My mother and I were recently on the campus, and we both said the same thing: ‘The campus is beginning to feel like it did when Dad was here!’
“We loved seeing how the students liked being around Dr. Jackson. It reminded us so much of Dad’s approachability. The campus seems so much more free and fresh since Dr. Jackson has been here. The faculty and staff seem happier, or something. Dr. Jackson is a God-loving man who seems to care about people. He’s no pushover. Don’t fool yourself. But he seems to genuinely care about people,” she said.
Father figure to thousands
In addition to presiding over the school and inspiring thousands of students to earn their degrees, Bronson had his own children to raise and mold – Bunny, her brother Oswald Jr., who is called Chip, and their sister Flora Bronson-Stitt.
Of course, Bronson didn’t do it alone for he had the help of his wife, Helen, who has been by his side for 61years.
Raising the children was mainly Mrs. Bronson’s responsibility considering that during most of their relationship, her husband had thousands of students at the school who also looked to him as a father figure.
Shift for family
Bronson-Stitt said her father’s transition into his present state was definitely a new state of discovery and a wakeup call for her.
“Everything seemed to happen so suddenly and we were not ready for this stage in their lives. I know that it struck all three of us with a fear and uncertainty about the future. The transition to all of this was very gradual.
As they transition, so do we,” Bronson-Stitt said.
“My advice to others is that families must work together. It’s a big and new responsibility. It put all three of us in a new position of how we would work together and care for them. Learning how to work together is a challenge as well,” she remarked.
Bronson-Stitt, who also lives in Daytona Beach along with her sister, makes sure her mother and father’s needs are met.
“A few things I desire to do is spend time with my parents, help to fulfill whatever dreams and desires they may have at this present time, and have them interact as much with their friends and connections with the outside world as possible,” Bronson-Stitt continued.
Chip, after graduating from Bethune-Cookman, moved to Jacksonville where he now has a family, but he visits his parents and siblings often.
A “commitment to academic excellence” was the cornerstone of Bronson’s presidency. Under his leadership, major fields of study increased from 12 to 37. In addition to seven continuing education centers for students operating throughout the state, the college added new accreditations in the nursing and the teacher education programs.
Student enrollment increased from 1,520 in 1975 to 2,794 in 2003. Fifteen new buildings were constructed under his administration, most notably the 2,500-seat Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center.
Bunny Bronson added that as far as physical accomplishments, the Performing Arts Center was one of his crowning achievements he talked about.
“From the beginning, Daddy wanted an impressive and meaningful presence on International Speedway Boulevard., as well as an edifice worthy of Dr. Bethune’s greatness. He wanted something state-of-the-art where major, wholesome, national and international performances could take place,” she said.
“Dad never expressed on his accomplishments in terms of what he was proud of. He often deflected attention away from himself. Sometimes that would make Mom and me really mad because he often gave too much credit to other people the things he actually did himself,” Bunny remarked.
An ordained United Methodist minister, Bronson pastored in a number of churches. Prior to his job at Bethune-Cookman, he served as president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta from 1968 to 1975.
He graduated from then B-CC in 1950 and also earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Gammon Theological Seminary. He received a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1965.
“Enrollment increases and graduations rates were important, but not nearly as important as quality performance and academic excellence. When Daddy first came to Bethune-Cookman (as president), ‘academic excellence’ was his mantra,” Bunny noted.
“Dad has always been about, and still is about, building people rather than just building things. When he’s able to express himself, he even encourages and builds up his nurses,” she continued.
She remembers many stories her father and mother shared with her growing up.
“Dad and Mom often said that Dr. (Mary McLeod) Bethune’s (founder of Bethune-Cookman) presence filled a room. Whenever she walked into a class on campus, the students had to stand.
“When she would give an address, she often did so with her hand on her hip,” said Bunny, adding that her father came to the college as a student under President James Colston and graduated under Dr. Richard V. Moore. Dr. Bronson succeeded Dr. Moore as president.
She said that after a special program honoring Dr. Moore at ITC, while her father was serving as president there, “Moore was so impressed that he soon led the charge to get Daddy to come to Bethune-Cookman as president.
Daddy turned the school down four times before he finally said yes.”
Bunny said the family began to notice their father’s illnesses shortly after he finished a stint at Edward Waters College, where he was interim president from 2005 to 2007 while the Jacksonville HBCU searched for a new president.
“(President Barack) Obama was elected during the beginning of Dad’s illness so there was not a lot of conversation about it, in that, most of his time was trying to find out what was going on with his health,” she explained.
She remembers her father being very excited about this country electing a Black president “though Daddy did not agree with all of Obama’s politics.”
“Every situation is different. Be careful about people who are always “lecturing” you about how you should or should not feel during this process.
This is an unscripted path. You are learning as you go. Cry if you must but never, ever, condemn yourself, especially when you are doing the very best you can. And don’t allow others to condemn you,” advises Bunny, who will include some of these suggestions in her forthcoming book.
“These are precious years. Treasure them. Don’t take this time for granted.
As hard as it may be at times, be very patient with them. They are having to deal with the adjustments of aging just like we are having to deal with seeing them age. On top of that, we are having to deal with our own personal aging issues. When it’s all said and done, they’ve still done more for us than we could ever do for them. I cherish every moment,” she added.
‘Mindset of a pastor’
Flora Bronson-Stitt echoed her sister’s sentiments about their parents.
“My parents have always been there for me and my siblings. Both of my parents have always encouraged me and I am so thankful for them. My parents have always worked together as a united front. He was a strong believer in not sparing the rod. The basis of everything he did was love and relationship,” said Bronson-Stitt, who teaches English and reading and is currently working on her master’s degree.
If her father becomes able, Bronson-Stitt said she believes he would become pastor of a church.
“He could never drop that call in his life. He’s always had the mindset of a pastor and shepherd. He would be involved in a myriad of works to bring about effective change in the community,” she continued.
“Many have said that my father pastored Bethune-Cookman and I believe and agree with that statement,” she said.
Bronson-Stitt said the most important thing to her these days is family and friends.
“You can’t do it all yourself. All must work together. It decreases stress levels, helps maintain a better environment that helps in the healing process in some kind of way, and promotes an atmosphere of peace on all levels,” she added.